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By MEGAN PETERSEN
Daily News Staff Writer
Over the past two weeks, Fawn Mountain Elementary students got a crash course in what goes on at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp with Tlingit musician Ed Littlefield as an artist-in-residence in the school’s music classes.
Littlefield has been teaching Fawn Mountain’s entire student body about music and Tlingit culture since May 9, and Tuesday’s lessons focused on the concept of storytelling in music.
"Like I said in (Tuesday’s fifth-grade) class, your stories have to have a beginning and a middle and an end," Littlefield said. "Music and art is always the same. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, so they were creating a beginning and a middle and an end. I usually take two weeks of an hour-and-a-half (class) each day to do this process, and this was the third or fourth day, so we're skipping a lot of steps, but they're creating art and creating a story through music. The story can be vague or very specific, but it's a story nonetheless."
Barbara Guenther’s and Lori Orlowski’s fifth-graders created their own short skits that included body percussion, in which performers use their bodies as instruments by creating a rhythm with a series of claps, slaps and snaps. Some students were also inspired by pop culture, like the macarena and Michael Jackson, and national politics.
One group of students lined up during Tuesday’s class to showcase the performance they’d created during the 75-minute class. They giggled nervously before one student stepped forward.
"Do you guys like Donald Trump?" she said.
The audience chorused ‘no’ while the rest of the performers chanted ‘no, we don’t.’
"Donald Trump ruins America," the performers said as they covered their faces with their left arms and raised their right arms in the air, before switching arms and saying, "Donald Trump ruins our families."
For the finale, another performer stepped forward with a drumstick in her hand, and the group raised their hands over their heads in a symbol they said meant ‘peace out’ and said, "Dump Trump!" The girl dropped the drum stick with a deadpan expression in an improvised mic drop, and the group of 30 fifth-graders dissolved into giggles, while the performers began their eight-step body percussion routine.
Littlefield emphasized after class that he gave the students complete freedom in making their skits and had no creative control in what they came up with, though he did give suggestions regarding rhythm and body percussion techniques.
"I was like, ‘There are probably a lot of people (in Ketchikan) that like Donald, but whatever, it's not me,’" Littlefield said, laughing, about the students’ performance. "What do they say — 'The thoughts expressed here in this performance are not necessarily thoughts of my own.’"
Tia Wilhelm, music teacher at Fawn Mountain and Point Higgins Elementary School, said Littlefield’s residency is supported by a $1,650 grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts and a $2,000 donation from Fawn Mountain’s parent-teacher organization.
Wilhelm said she participated in a teaching-artist workshop led by Littlefield several years ago and thought he would be a good fit for an artist-in-residence at Fawn Mountain, especially as 46 percent of the school’s student body is American Indian or Alaska Native.
"(Littlefield) is so knowledgeable about the Tlingit culture and the Tlingit language that I just couldn't resist, so I applied for a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts for an artist-in-residence," Wilhelm said.
Littlefield said he’s proud to share his culture with students.
"Having an artist residency that showcases Tlingit culture is actually even more important than any music thing, because we live in a Tlingit (area)," Littlefield said. "Especially in Ketchikan where it's a confluence of Tsimshian, Haida and Tlingit, you want to know who the people were who were here before the United States or the Russians. Hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago, these people were here, so we'd like to show respect and learn a little something about them."
It’s fun for the students, too. Fifth-grader Alexa Page said she liked learning "the weird words" of the Tlingit language, and fifth-grader Justice Lahmeyer said she liked being active in the classroom.
"It’s just so much fun learning about Native culture," Justice said, adding, "I like how we get to do dancing and stuff."
The fifth-grade class will be performing the short skits they worked on in Tuesday’s class at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the Saxman Tribal House. The performance is free and open to the public, and fifth-grader Autumn Padron said she was looking forward to sharing the art they’ve created.
"I am nervous, but I have (the routine) down like the back of my hand," Autumn said.